Take a Drink: every time a crowd gathers to watch Pepper.
Take a Drink: every time Ronnie calls Pepper a name.
Take a Drink: every time someone calls Hashimoto a “Jap”.
Take a Drink: every time we see Pepper’s imagined world
Take a Drink: every time there’s a mention or show of boots.
Do a Shot: every time Pepper grunts and attempts to move something with his mind (Be warned, this is black out material).
By: The Cinephiliac (Four Beers) –
It’s World War II and tensions are high in the small coastal California town of O’Hare. Folks all over the town are locked into the zeitgeist of the period, feeling the strain and anger of losing loved ones to the war. For the Busbee family, their only relief is each other. Father and son James (Michael Rapaport) and Pepper (Jakob Salvati), live in a fantastical world where together they conjure up imaginary situations where they ride away from the sunset as cowboys and helm turbulent seas as pirates. Each time, James makes sure Pepper is prepared for the tough tasks at hand by asking him if he believes he can do it. “I believe I can do it!” Pepper shouts in return, and their adventures continue until mother, Emma (Emily Watson), breaks through their world.
But joy quickly gives way to terror and worry for the Busbee family when older brother London (David Hernie) is denied a position into the army due to his flat feet, making James the sole bearer of the responsibility. James assumes his duty and heads overseas, leaving his wife and sons to make it without him. London retreats into guilt-ridden anger, while Pepper, bullied by his peers for his short stature, finds refuge in the power of faith after a church sermon convinces him that through faith he can bring his father home. Further encouraged by his favorite magician, Ben Allen, and a local priest, Father Oliver (Tom Wilkinson), Pepper is tasked with upholding a strong faith and completing a list of good deeds to achieve his deepest wish. While learning the lesson of faith and devotion, Pepper makes an unlikely friend in an older Japanese man shunned by the townsfolk who despise him for sharing the same face as the enemy. Together the two make an unlikely pair, helping Pepper learn what being a good person is all about and how faith can move mountains.
Despite its outwardly silly premise, director Alejandro Gómez Monteverde’s makes Little Boy a beautifully attractive film to watch. Monteverde installs a perfect touch of nostalgic sentimentality through carefully constructed mise-en-scene. There’s a slight grain to the film that is offset by blinding soft lighting that seems to glow in luminous glory during outside scenes. Editors Joan Sobel and Fernando Villena blend crafty match cuts and quick jump cuts through time to transition the story tastefully. One sequence in particular shows viewers the talents of the editors and Monteverde’s vision as we watch two separate struggles intertwine: James during an ambush mission and Pepper getting cornered by Ronnie, a portly kid who hates Pepper for his height and apparently nothing else.
Little Boy’s screenplay attempts to give rhyme and reasoning to the actions of others (local townsman Sam’s pent up racial aggression at Hashimoto is because his son recently died in battle). But, it skips over rationale for Ronnie, a one-dimensional bully whose only existence is to make Pepper as miserable as possible. Ronnie has no hobbies or purpose in the film except to act as a challenge to Pepper every step of the way. When he’s not talking shit about or to Pepper, he’s hanging with his minions giving Pepper side eyes. His only mode of conversation is calling Pepper a “dwarf” or “midget” and at one point he breaks into Pepper’s home to steal the list of deeds Pepper must accomplish. What 3rd grader does that?! Furthermore, once Pepper stands up to Ronnie we don’t focus on him anymore. In fact, the one time we do see him afterwards he’s an almost faceless extra in the background. No more discussion of what happened, no reaction, nothing.
Which leads to another weak point of Little Boy: its muddled screenplay. The story bounces here, there, and everywhere. First its focus is the Busbee family, then we find ourselves watching the saga of Pepper’s bully-filled trials. Next, we travel into the terrain of Hashimoto and how the townspeople treat him. Then, the blossoming friendship of Pepper and Hashimoto becomes the film’s line of vision before we are transported to the struggles of James in the war. Little Boy wants to tackle multiple issues and storylines, but the lack of focus on one particular element weakens the overall story and lacks the strength needed to keep your undivided attention.
Little Boy’s tone is pretty religious. At times, it gets so preachy that I almost expected Kirk Cameron to pop up in a guest cameo to tell me how I’ve been living a life of sin. Don’t get me wrong, they don’t explicitly say God or Jesus (maybe they do, I dozed off a few times). Instead, God is referred to as Father Oliver’s imaginary friend or “him upstairs.” The theme of faith, a very generally accepted idea from all religious backgrounds, isn’t approached from a universal stance. It comes from a very Christian mindset in the film. There’s nothing wrong with this per say, but it does make Little Boy feel as if it’s beating you over the head with its dogma and beliefs. It made me wonder if the writers of God is Not Dead or Heaven is For Real had something to do with it.
Though I unintentionally dozed off for a few minutes in Little Boy due to its general “meh”-ness, I was duped by the music, mood lighting, and perfectly set-up emotional payoffs that happen and cried by the end. Little Boy is not an exceptional film in anyway, but it is commendable. It attempts to showcase how racist attitudes in times of war leads people down unnecessary dark paths and hurt everyone involved. It uses an 8-year-old kid to reiterate the pain of war and how one can find peace by having faith, using their energy for good, and helping their community back home while those who are missed fight abroad. You may not be able to move mountains, but intentions can spark a moving change deep inside that has positive effects on everyone around you.